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Winter 2004 | View from South Africa

Winter 2004 | View from South Africa

Journeying to the edge of the Africa, Darren Frei encounters a thriving gay metropolis brimming with beguiling dichotomies.

At33 feet per second the Rotair Cableway hoists me and 60 other tourists up the steep face of Cape Town’s most iconic landmark, Table Mountain. In less than three minutes we’ll be strolling atop this striking horizontal mesa—but for now our lives hang in precarious vertical limbo. Suddenly the thunderous sound of a cannon echoes through the rotating cable car. This is the end, I think. Two days earlier in Soweto, the impoverished black township outside Johannesburg (a two-hour flight from Cape Town), I visited a sangoma, a traditional healer who channels ancestral spirits to advise the living. Nkunzi (pronounced “goonzee”) warned me that a terrible accident was imminent. Despite the wild-eyed intensity with which she delivered this dire prediction, I brushed it off as irrational superstition. But now, dangling from a besieged 18-ton cable, I find her words have astonishing resonance. My Capetonian guide senses the dread in my eyes. “That cannon goes off every day at noon,” he explains, laughing. “You can set your watch by it.”

He gestures toward the opposite window, where the magnificent beauty of Cape Town unfolds like a fully animated postcard: Fog rolls swiftly off the top of diminutive Signal Hill, where the offending cannon is perched; sunshine glistens off the waves and white-sand beaches of gay-friendly Camps Bay; boats ferry tourists out to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned during the dark days of apartheid. The view alone is more spellbinding than Nkunzi’s Swazi magic. I can’t wait to get on solid ground to explore this vibrant city, full of more surprising revelations than the grim predictions of the healer.

Many Americans expect to step off the plane in South Africa and see people with spears living in huts. Although the lack of loincloths may be a disappointment, the amazingly hip and open gay life in Cape Town is nothing short of astounding. The country is both yin and yang, wild and tamed. For instance, a waiter at the Two Oceans Restaurant on Cape Point (a 45-minute drive from Cape Town) shooed a baboon off my table before serving up a sophisticated fusion of East African and Mediterranean cuisine. On my return to the city I stopped in suburban Simons Town, home to a flourishing colony of monogamous jackass penguins (so named because of their donkeylike braying). You can’t come to Africa without doing a safari (most Americans squeeze one in), but cosmopolitan Cape Town is South Africa’s real draw for gay tourists. And the locals are so friendly and have such cute accents, who couldn’t help but adore the place? Indeed, many Americans do, setting a record of nearly 45,000 visitors in the first three months of 2004 alone. And in-the-know gays are purchasing dirt-cheap winter vacation homes here by the score.

Meandering along the city’s historic waterfront, I find it hard to believe the place has only been free for a decade, having broken through a long dark age where blacks were not allowed on public beaches and gays were imprisoned for sodomy. Nelson Mandela can be credited for keeping this “rainbow nation” of 11 languages and multiple races steady and peaceful during an immense and potentially explosive transition. Now blacks and whites and “coloreds” (a nonracist term referring to people of mixed race) all stroll along the boardwalk amid million-dollar condos and chic cafés; it feels like apartheid was some sort of baffling nightmare from long ago.

Besides racial emancipation, South Africa is undergoing an all-out gay liberation as well. It’s one of only a handful of nations that declares gay and lesbian rights in its constitution, and many say some form of same-sex marriage may not be far away.

Rowan Smith, a colored openly gay clergyman, presides over Cape Town’s Episcopalian congregation at St. George’s Cathedral, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu delivered his most fiery political sermons against apartheid. At the opening of the burgeoning South African Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Smith jokes, “What’s the difference between being gay and being black?” Answer: “You don’t have to tell your mother that you’re black.” Later that night in a crowded gay bar, the gregarious minister and I boogie to the raspy croon of bisexual pop artist Brenda Fassie, South Africa’s answer to Whitney Houston.

Not long ago, South African gay bars were located down blind alleys, and patrons had to knock on doors to gain admittance. Now, Cape Town’s Green Point neighborhood is home to numerous establishments flaunting rainbow flags and sexy male pinups in their windows. Though many of the quaint, brightly colored buildings in this compact hillside hood are owned by the same real estate company, the services offered—including bathhouses, late-night dance clubs, and sophisticated wine bars—are as diverse as your desires. I spent my last night in Cape Town at the Bronx “action” bar, which was swarming with a sexy mix of salty men and sassy women. One jaded local cracked, “The sexual preferences here are like your Tupperware collection—not enough tops to go with all the bottoms.”

But no place is gay paradise. In early 2003 a group of men were shot in a Cape Town gay massage parlor, and in 1999 there was a huge local outcry against the Miss Gay South Africa drag pageant. That same year several people were injured when a Green Point gay bar was pipe-bombed in response to a story about gays seeking asylum in South Africa from oppressive Islamic African countries.

Such incidents are rare, but South Africa’s chronic social problems are more persistent. Cape Town’s underbelly teems with Third World townships similar to Soweto, where identifying as gay or lesbian carries the weight of irreversible shame. This is why, I find out later, the healer Nkunzi became a sangoma: Channeling the spirit of her main ancestor, an uncle who wanted a “wife” through her, was the only way Nkunzi could be with another woman. “Generally, people in the townships accept same-sex relationships when it’s a sangoma,” says my guide. “But in Nkunzi’s case, other sangomas are against it because they think it’s just for her lesbian desires.” So much for her calamitous prophecy.

You also can’t talk about South Africa without mentioning AIDS, since the country has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. Zackie Achmat, an HIV-positive activist who spent years refusing AIDS medications in protest of their inflated costs, explained in an interview, “The current cost of HIV medications is about $10 a day, which may not sound like much, but it’s a fortune for most of the people in the townships who earn only $100 a month. There’s still a tremendous amount of stigma in South Africa, where people won’t even acknowledge at funerals that loved ones died from AIDS.”

But there has been progress, including public education campaigns and lawsuits against international pharmaceutical companies. Achmat also said, “The one good thing the government has done is pass antidiscrimination laws for HIV positives in school, housing, and the workplace.”

Overall, South Africa remains full of buoyant hope. After all, it was able to transform itself from an isolated racist fortress to one of the most progressive countries in the world. If the recent past is any indication, this rainbow nation will continue to rise to its challenges and blaze a new trail for modern Africa. Viewed from the dizzying heights of Table Mountain or the euphoric dance floor of the Bronx, it’s clear that Cape Town is plunging headfirst into this uncharted territory.



(Dial 011 before all non–toll-free U.S. phone numbers) Moderate: Amsterdam Guest House (19 Forest Rd. and 5 Highworth Rd.; 27-21-461-8236; $50–$150) is actually two separate hotels, one in the City Bowl underneath Table Mountain and the other in cosmopolitan Sea Point. Both have stylish rooms, great views, balconies, Jacuzzis, and saunas—and are for gay men only. 17 on Loader (17 Loader St.; 27-21-418-3417; $50–$125), located in the colorful De Waterkant area, has incredible rooftop views of Table Mountain. Blackheath Lodge (6 Blackheath Rd., Sea Point; 27-21-439-2541; $73–$122) is a fancy yet homey B&B with seven bedrooms, a luxury pool, a library, a lounge, verandas, and friendly gay hosts. Expensive: Kwandwe Private Game Reserve (888-882-3742; $360–$2,215) is a haven of absolute luxury nestled deep in a rural area of the Eastern Cape Province. The historic property stretches along 26 miles of the Great Fish River, where visitors are treated to guided treks through the dry, open wilderness (you can experience close encounters with lions, giraffes, hippos, and gray monkeys). Farther inland, in the stunning KwaZulu-Natal region, the White Elephant Safari Lodge (Pongola Private Game Reserve; 27-34-413-2489; $200–$450) is a colonial-style luxury resort offering bird-watching, canoeing, fishing, and guided rhino walks. Located amid the vineyards of the Western Cape, Grande Roche Hotel (Plantasie St.; 27-21-863-2727; $250–$750) features 29 uniquely appointed suites. Nestled at the foot of Table Mountain, Mount Nelson Hotel (76 Orange St.; 27-21-483-1000; $550–$2,000) has upheld high standards of luxury and elegance since 1899.


Inexpensive: Nose (Dixon St.; 27-21-425-2200; $10–$20), located in the heart of the gay village, is a wine bar offering a wide selection of South African vintages paired with Mediterranean and Asian delicacies. Moderate-Expensive: The new much-talked-about eatery Tank (72 Waterkant St.; 27-21-419-0007; $10–$30) is in the Green Point neighborhood near the waterfront. It features a sleek decor à la New York City, a 4,400-gallon floor-to-ceiling fish tank, a lavish sushi bar, and staff obviously handpicked for their beauty. Five Flies (14–16 Keerom St.; 27-21-424-4442; $11–$25) restaurant and bar occupies an 18th-century house and courtyard and has a clean interior filled with art. Once a brothel catering to lonely seamen, it now serves up a dazzling menu of local fish like kingklip and linefish as well as sautéed ostrich and slow-roasted leg of lamb.


The Green Point area contains the bulk of Cape Town’s gay venues, the best-known being Bronx (35 Somerset Rd.; 27-21-419-9216), a two-story house-techno scene complete with a smattering of straight club kids. There’s also a balcony and deck for fresh air. Leather lads should head to Bar Code (16 Hudson St.; 27-21-421-5305). With its industrial interior, a dark maze, and an outdoor patio, it is more sophisticated than one would expect in Africa. For a softer side of the city check out Café Manhattan (4 Waterkant St.; 27-21-421-6666), a bar, restaurant, and cabaret theater that is as social as Cape Town gets. It has patio seating, wood-beamed ceilings, and a warm, friendly vibe.


Out in Africa: The South African Gay and Lesbian Film Festival is a month-long celebration of moffies in the movies, with venues and parties in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. Table Mountain Rotair Cableway (27-21-424-0015) is the least rigorous way to see the most dramatic views of Cape Town. Another must is a tour of Robben Island (27-21-409-5100), where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for decades. Tours are led by guides who were once political prisoners. Don’t leave Cape Town without taking a tour of the friendly Langa Township. Thuthuka Tours (27-21-433-2429) has great day trips run by locals who live in these huge neighborhoods and enjoy educating visitors about their history and dreams of the future. You can even enjoy a buffet lunch of delicious African dishes at one of the residents’ houses.

Getting There

Gay-owned Gay2Afrika (877-200-5610) is a U.S.-based company offering eye-popping bargains to Cape Town and South Africa, including air and hotel packages and local gay tour guides.

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at if you have any new information.

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